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ASPIRES research: project blog


Studying the science and career aspirations of 10-23 year olds.


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Do university students feel that A levels prepared them well for degree study?

By l.archer, on 19 April 2024

By Emily Ashford, Jennifer DeWitt and Louise Archer 

 The ASPIRES research study is a longitudinal project studying young people’s science and career aspirations from age 10-22. The study has been ongoing since 2009.  Beyond its primary focus on STEM trajectories, the study is also interested in young people’s perceptions of their life, work, and education. In this article, we examine did university students in our sample feel that A Levels had prepared them well for degree study?  

University students’ perceptions of how well they felt A-levels have prepared them for degree study is important in the context of current UK policy, given contemporary debates around the future of A-Levels. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic amplified discussions about alternative assessment methods and in recent years, various policy concerns relating to A levels have been raised, for instance, questioning the ‘jump’ between GCSE and A level, the practice of grade inflation in some subjects, and the extent to which A levels fit with university admissions and entry requirements.  Most notably, in October 2023, the UK Government announced a planned new qualification for 16–19-year-olds – the Advanced British Standard, which is envisaged to combine A Levels and T Levels. Proponents claim it will put technical and academic education on an equal footing, with the prime minister stating that the qualification will ‘help to spread opportunity and benefit students for generations to come, demonstrating our clear commitment to make the right decisions for the long-term future of our country’ (UK Gov, 2023).  

The ASPIRES project

The ASPIRES study tracked a cohort of young people who were born in 1998-1999 from age 10-22. The first phase followed the young people from age 10 to 14, the second phase tracked up to age 19, and the third phase followed the young people as they move into adulthood and employment, from age 20 to 23.    

The study uses quantitative, large-scale surveys (and has surveyed c. 47,000 young people to date) and qualitative data, comprising over 750 interviews conducted over time with a subset of 50 young people and their parents/ carers.   

We asked university students how well they felt their A Levels had prepared them for degree study. We compared their responses based on whether the student studied a STEM/non-STEM subject, and compared students from different backgrounds, for example looking at gender, ethnicity and index of multiple deprivation (IMD, hereafter) which is often used as a measure of poverty.  


First, we looked at whether there were any differences in how well students felt they had been prepared by A levels between students who were taking different subjects at undergraduate level. At opposite ends of the scale, we can see that 61% of Maths degree students agreed that they had been well prepared by their A-Levels, whilst only 37% of Biology students felt the same.  

Figure 1: Percentage of students that felt their A-Levels had prepared them well for degree study in our sample, stratified by STEM and non-STEM undergraduate degree.  

Combining across subject areas, roughly half of all students agreed that their A-Levels had prepared them well for degree study. However, when we delved deeper into the data some potentially interesting patterns emerged.  


Characteristic   % STEM Students agreeing A levels had prepared them well for degree 
Male   55.7%  
Female   53.3%  
White   57.7%  
BAME  48.8%  
1&2 (Lowest group)  46.8% 
3 (Middle Group)  65.5% 
4&5 (Highest Group)  57.0%  

Table 1: Percentage of STEM undergraduate students in our sample who felt that their A-Levels had prepared them well for degree study, stratified by gender, ethnicity and indices of multiple deprivation.  

As Table 1 shows, the percentage of STEM students who felt they had been well prepared by their A-Levels varies across characteristics such as gender, ethnicity and IMD. Here we see that the lowest percentages of students agreeing that A Levels prepared them well for degree study are found among women, racially minoritised and the lowest income students. When we tested for statistical significance, income and ethnicity were both significantly associated with feeling prepared for degree study by their A-Levels (whilst gender was not). That is, white students and middle- and higher- income students felt most prepared by A levels for their degree study. 

We also repeated the analysis to look at students who were doing non-STEM subjects at undergraduate level and the patterns were similar but with slightly smaller percentage differences between the groups. For non-STEM students, income and ethnicity were significantly associated with feeling prepared for degree study.  

The table above does not include medicine. When we analysed the data using two groups including medicine, STEMM students and non-STEMM students, we saw the same patterns emerging. However, in this latter case, income was the only factor that was statistically significant.  


The longitudinal design of this study provides a unique and comprehensive lens through which we can analyse student narratives and perceptions of work, education, and training. The ASPIRES study reveals useful new insights into students’ views of how well they feel their A-Levels have prepared them for degree study.  

It is important to highlight that – across all groups – roughly only half of students felt that their A Levels have prepared them well for their undergraduate degree study. It appears that there are socio-economic factors that can affect this, as income and ethnicity were significantly associated with feeling prepared for university (and this was true across STEM and non-STEM groups). More research is required to understand more thoroughly the relationship between these factors. 

Arguably, more students should feel that their A Levels are a worthwhile stepping stone to their undergraduate study, and we hope that our findings might be helpful to policymakers as they shape future educational policies and initiatives. As new reforms are introduced, it would seem helpful for research to continue to investigate and understand students perceptions of their education.  


New qualifications to deliver world class education for all – GOV.UK (www.gov.uk) 

Has lockdown changed young people’s aspirations?

By ASPIRES Research, on 20 October 2020

This blog was originally posted by the British Science Association as a guest blog.

On Tuesday 17 March 2020, we were told, along with many other researchers in the UK, that by the end of the week, we would no longer have access to our office and that we should conduct our research remotely where possible. For many colleagues working on educational research projects, this posed considerable challenges for fieldwork, as schools, colleges and other educational settings closed. However, the ASPIRES 3 research team, led by Professor Louise Archer, based at UCL Institute of Education, found that the forced move to online fieldwork offered some interesting new opportunities and experiences.

The ASPIRES 3 research study builds on the work of ASPIRES and ASPIRES 2, longitudinally tracking the science and career aspirations of a cohort of young people. Since 2009, the ASPIRES research team have collected over 560 interviews in total, with both young people and their parents, speaking to each of them on up to six occasions – when the young people were in Year 6, Year 8, Year 9, Year 11, Year 13, and now in 2020, when the cohort are 20/ 21 years old and finishing the academic year of their university courses, graduating into a world shaped by the pandemic, or already working.

For most study participants, the same researcher has spoken to them every couple of years, since they were 10 or 11 years old. This, along with the fact that we have also regularly interviewed their parents, helped considerably with the challenge of contacting individuals to organise interviews. We’ve found that, compared with previous years, it was easier to arrange interviews as we did not have to contend with the logistics of travel (all the interviews were recorded remotely) and because most participants had more time to participate, as some were furloughed, others were working from home (like us), and lots had been sent home from university earlier than expected.

As CheekyMonkey* said, “it’s nice to kind of just look back and…kind of like reflect on like myself and what I’m doing”.

Typically, our interviews with the students have taken an hour. This time around, however, they were often double that length. This may have reflected people having more time to talk during lockdown and looking for ways to alleviate boredom or isolation. But we also felt that the young people also had a lot to say – and a need to be listened to in a rapidly changing world facing many challenges – which they hope to shape.

Lots of the young people commented on how nice it was to take time to reflect on how they had gotten to where they are now. As CheekyMonkey* said, “it’s nice to kind of just look back and…kind of like reflect on like myself and what I’m doing”. They shared their worries and hopes for the future and highlighted that this generation are missing out on what is meant to be the “best years of their lives”, with their futures ahead of them. One participant, Davina* mentioned concerns about getting a job, adding that “the potential like massive crash of the economy is going to mess up like an entire generation’s like future. Like my generation will probably be the worst affected by that, because obviously we’ve got our whole lives to get on with.

Overall, 87% of the young people interviewed so far talked about negative impacts they’ve experienced as a result of the lockdown.

Overall, 87% of the young people interviewed so far talked about negative impacts they’ve experienced as a result of the lockdown. These experiences of financial hardship; feelings of stress, anxiety and sadness; missing friends, family and partners; and concerns about housing and jobs in the future. With over 80% of the interviewees currently in higher education or at the point of graduating, many of the participants mentioned negative impacts to their studies and the move to online learning, including struggling to maintain motivation and concentration; loss of interactive learning opportunities, such as practicals and lab time; missing key learning experiences and opportunities, for example, placements and internships; and the transition to online learning being poorly managed and communicated by their course leaders or universities.

In line with findings from the BSA, many of our participants said the pandemic had reaffirmed their interests in their STEM subject or future aspirations. This includes students hoping to study, or currently studying, medicine, bio-sciences and individuals considering a career in teaching. Joanne* who is considering a graduate degree in medicine commented that “Hearing about all the great research that’s been going on during COVID has made me think oh maybe that would be good…if anything it’s made me want to do medicine more.”

Although most expressed concerns about finding work during the recession, young people studying STEM at university seemed less concerned about the immediate future. Computer Science graduates felt the pandemic has only strengthened the importance of technology and data security. As Josh* pointed out “everyone’s using technology more because that’s how they’re staying connected or working.  So, in some ways, there’s more demand for certain companies to perform.  And from a cyber security perspective there’s more people doing things online and there’s more companies relying on using computers.

Our recent report summarises our findings on how COVID-19 has impacted young people’s lives in England. Find out more about the ASPIRES study on our website ucl.ac.uk/ioe-aspires.

*All names in this blog and the report are pseudonyms to keep participant’s identities confidential.

5 takeaways for research impact from our project

By qtnvacl, on 2 August 2019

A re-post from the IOE blog (available here) written by Tatiana Souteiro Dias and Emily MacLeod.

Collaboration with individuals and organisations beyond academia for the benefit of society is an increasingly important part of research teams’ activities. But how can academics achieve this when there are so many competing priorities? For Professor Louise Archer, Principal Investigator of the ASPIRES/ASPIRES 2 project – who received the 2019 ESRC Celebrating Impact Prize Panel’s Choice Award this week – investing time and effort in building long-term relationships based on trust and respect is one of the answers.

The multiple award winning team of ASPIRES, a longitudinal research project studying young people’s science and career ambitions from age 10 to 19, shared their successful impact strategies as part of the first IOE Impact Meet-up, a new series of workshops bringing together experts, doctoral students and early career researchers from the IOE to discuss how to make authentic impact a key consideration in research projects from their inception.

Professor Archer also advocates the idea of ‘co-serving’ as part of a successful impact strategy; she explained that she is always working with and learning from stakeholders through a wide range of formats, including advisory groups, sitting on committees, being a Trustee and close partnership work, such as co-designing teaching approaches with teachers.

Professor Archer and project officer Emily Macleod described the way their project has influenced science education policy and informed change in organisations as varied as the Science Museum Group, the Greater London Authority and Education Scotland – and how this was achieved.

Here are five takeaways from the talk:

1- Research impact is for the long run – It may take years for researchers, policymakers and members of organisations outside academia to gain the mutual trust and understanding required for the research impact to fully develop. Therefore, remember to consistently record the dissemination of your work and its impact from the beginning of the project, as you never know where it will lead, advises the team. Research projects may end, but the impact will continue.

To this effect, Emily Macleod recommends a simple spreadsheet to record what impact has occurred, who the impact has influenced, and how it was achieved, as well as the following categories:

  • Date of impact
  • Source/Output of impact
  • Author/Actor of impact, and the type of author (e.g. teacher, charity, government department)
  • Whether the impact is UK-based or International
  • Audience Reached by the impact
  • Key finding(s) from the research which influenced the impact
  • Evidence of the impact

2- Learn how to work in new registers and speak the stakeholders’ language.Organisations may have a different culture and work in very different ways than researchers are used to. Although it is not always easy to achieve, Professor Louise Archer highlighted the importance of always considering and working to understand others’ points of view as well as their needs and interests when working collaboratively.

3- Institutional memory can be easily lost. Key employees, internal communications officers and, to a lesser extent, civil servants the team built relationships with moved on – and with them went the prior knowledge of the project. Continuous engagement then is required. Often, the team needed to start again from scratch. Policy changes due to emerging government priorities might also become a barrier to achieving impact, and a degree of flexibility and serendipity comes into play.

4- Be open and responsive. Having a communications officer as part of the research project team proved to be a valuable addition, as the researchers were alerted about useful developments within the world of policy that they might otherwise have missed. For instance, the communications officer who worked on the ASPIRES 2 project in 2018 found out about a newly created All Party Parliamentary Group on Diversity and Inclusion in STEM – the British Science Association APPG. This led to an opportunity for Archer to make a strong case for reviewing the effectiveness and desirability of the current GCSE Triple Science system (for more information see Aspires Triple Science Policy Briefing).

5- Partner with professional services staff. Large national research projects such as ASPIRES often have the budget and ability to incorporate a project officer to help plan and record their public engagement and impact activities in a timely, consistent and organised manner. As such, the expertise of professional services staff is highly valuable and saves academics crucial time. The researchers also benefited from a regular newsletter summarising key policy developments for an academic audience issued by the Public Affairs and Policy team.

Winners of the Panel’s Choice award at the 2019 ESRC Celebrating Impact Prize

By qtnvacl, on 11 July 2019

We are delighted to announce that the ASPIRES2 project has won the Panel’s Choice award at the 2019 ESRC Celebrating Impact Prize, and was finalist in the award’s Outstanding Societal Impact category.

Watch a video about our project impact here:

More information about the ESRC’s Celebrating Impact Prize 2019 here.

Science Capital team wins the 2018 BERA Public Engagement and Impact Award

By qtnvacl, on 29 October 2018

The winner of the 2018 British Educational Research Association (BERA) Public Engagement and Impact award is The ASPIRES/ ASPIRES 2  team, along with our colleagues Enterprising Science, for our research on ‘science capital’ and educational inequalities.

BERA cited the research’s impact on national and international science education policy, practice, and understanding “across government departments, national institutions, museums, science centres, and major science and engineering professional societies.”

Professor Archer, on behalf of the ASPIRES/ASPIRES 2 and Enterprising Science team said: “We are absolutely delighted to win this award and would like to thank all the young people, teachers, schools and parents who have so kindly taken part in our research. We are also very grateful to all the stakeholder organisations who we work with. These relationships have been instrumental to our professional learning, helping us to sharpen our thinking, translate ideas and develop a richer appreciation of the potential relationship between research, policy and practice.”

The British Educational Research Association (BERA) award recognises the important impact of educational research and practice and celebrates significant contributions and activities that demonstrably engage the public.

From the BERA Panel: “The ASPIRES/ASPIRES 2 and Enterprising Science research projects team originated the concept of ‘science capital’, developed new understandings of what produces unequal patterns in science participation, and developed a teaching approach to improve science engagement. Their research has dramatically changed science education policy and practice both nationally and internationally, shifting understanding, policy and practice across government departments, national institutions, museums, science centres, and major science and engineering professional societies. The team’s work reflects their commitment to social justice, and demonstrates their ability to lead sustained improvement in broadening STEM aspirations, participation, and diversity based on strong conceptual, empirical research.”

Read more on the BERA and IOE webpages.


Meet our Director

By qtnvacl, on 16 June 2017

As the new Karl Mannheim Professor of Sociology of Education our Director, Professor Louise Archer, took part in a Q&A session.

Read about Louise’s role, and what her proudest academic achievement is, here.


ASPIRES 2 Research featured in Education and Employers Research Report

By qtnvacl, on 20 May 2017

Following the 2016 International Conference on Employer Engagement in Education and Training, where ASPIRES 2 Research Associate Dr. Julie Moote presented project findings on careers education provision, our research has been published in ‘Research for Practice: Papers from the 2016 International Conference on Employer Engagement in Education and Training’, edited by Anthony Mann and Jordan Rehill.

Our contribution to the paper presents findings based on data collected in the first data collection cycle of ASPIRES 2, when students were in Year 11, aged 15-16. Alarmingly, our data showed that careers education provision in England is not just ‘patchy’, but ‘patterned’ in terms of existing social inequalities. Our findings therefore indicated that schools are not only failing to provide careers education to all, but that the students most in need of this support are the least likely to receive it.

Watch Dr. Moote’s presentation here.

The full paper can be found here.

The ASPIRES Project Spotlight on careers education provision can be accessed here.

In an-depth analysis of our findings on careers education can be found here.

ASPIRES 2 moves to the UCL Institute of Education

By qtnvacl, on 1 March 2017

Following the appointment of ASPIRES 2 director, Professor Louise Archer, to the Karl Mannheim Chair of Sociology of Education based in the Department of Education, Practice and Society at the UCL Institute of Education, the ASPIRES 2 project will be moving from King’s College London from 1st March.

Our longitudinal study, funded by the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council, began with the ASPIRES project in 2009 at King’s College London’s School of Education, Communication (formerly the Department of Education and Professional Studies). Since 2009 our study into young people’s STEM and career aspirations has enabled us to track our cohort from primary, through secondary school and now, in our final round of data collection, at further education.

In the project’s eight years ASPIRES and ASPIRES 2 researchers have:

  • tracked students’ aspirations from age 10 to age 18
  • surveyed over 37,000 students
  • conducted regular interviews with over 90 students
  • spoken regularly with over 80 parents
  • analysed over 600 hours of transcribed qualitative interviews
  • visited schools across the country

Throughout the move our final round of fieldwork is ongoing, so look out for our emerging findings in the coming months.

We look forward to continuing our research at the IOE.


The ASPIRES 2 Team